Saturday, October 10, 2015

Aferim! (2015)

Aferim! (2015) is a recent Romanian movie which has been well received. It is about a sort of policeman from early-mid 19th century Wallachia who is hired by a nobleman to find a runaway slave, Garfin, who had slept with the nobleman's wife. The policeman brings along his son, with whom he has various discussions about life, about the world, about history, about what it means to be a man, and about what the future holds. It touches on themes of hypocrisy, racism, patriarchy, and social injustice.

I think this movie is more meaningful if you are Romanian than if not. Particularly familiar to Romanians will be the miserably pessimistic attitude which the policeman Constantin expresses: there's nothing you can do about injustice or about the disappointments of life; that's just the way things are, and as he says towards the end of the film, We live the way we have to, not the way we want to. At another point he muses: Oh, deceitful world! You first appear sweet, but afterwards are bitter. That is the kind of stereotypical pessimism that Romanian folk wisdom embodies. Romanians are generally not the bright, hopeful optimists you might find among Americans; they always think of the worst, expect the worst, have to make due with the worst.

The film very obviously is concerned with social injustices of 19th century Romania (which obviously stretch back to earlier times, as well). Gypsies are treated more or less like garbage, and they function as slaves for richer Romanian noblemen. They are sold in markets. Interestingly, one of the Orthodox priests from the film justifies the slavery on more or less the same grounds proposed by Americans during the same time of history: God's curse on Ham means that the gypsies, being darker skinned than Romanians, are only good for being controlled and owned like slaves. At the end of the film, the runaway slave Garfin is publicly castrated by the nobleman, even though the nobleman's wife admits that the adultery was entirely her own fault and the gypsy slave bore no guilt. The nobleman then demands that the slave be taken to the market pantless, so that everyone may see he is emasculated, and be sold.

One thing about the film which is particularly powerful is the clear class differences which obtain among people in the movie: peasants look like peasants, gypsies like gypsies, noblemen like noblemen, priests and monks like priests and monks, etc. Each class is easily distinguished by dress and appearance, as well as by speech and by stereotype. The noblemen wear ridiculous outfits with enormous headwear and multicolored robes in order to distinguish themselves from the villagers and peasants, who typically wear simple white tops with work pants and a belt and fur hat. This is a society in which every person has his own place: the noblemen above the peasants, the peasants above the gypsies, and the gypsies below everyone else.

Constantin and his son discuss what it means to be a man all throughout the film. To Constantin, being a man means: fighting, having sex with prostitutes and performing, being tough, killing, etc. Later on, the nobleman's wife complains to Constantin that he had beaten her very badly. His response was: he, being the man, has the right to beat his wife if she has done wrong -- although gently, with meekness, as our Christian law requires. This is another refrain of the film: the utter hypocrisy of a society which claims to be Christian and yet tolerates and even justifies such absurd inequalities and evils. The priests are all hysterical characters and drunks, who propagate absurdities to the parishioners and defend ethnic stereotypes, reinforcing racism and xenophobia in the Christian Romanian community rather than love and kindness. Interestingly, Constantin and his son happen across a priest in an open field whose wagon had broken down, and he offers to help him, since they are good samaritans. But later in the film, when they happen across a crashed wagon surrounded by naked, dead bodies, Constantin demands that they flee. When his son notes that one of the men was still breathing, Constantin refuses the opportunity actually to be a good samaritan, instead saying, "May God rest him in peace," out of fear that bandits would attack them as well.

Constantin is a hypocrite as well. When his son suggests that they let Garfin go before arriving at the nobleman's home, since the gypsy slave had done nothing wrong and would be punished unjustly, Constantin insists that he cannot go back on his word. His whole life he had done nothing wrong and had never committed an injustice against anyone. Yet he says this sleeping in an inn, in a small town where that same night he solicited a prostitute and admitted to his son to having enjoyed the company of multiple women beyond his wife.

The impression you would get of Romanians watching this film is not particularly favorable: they are absurd, self-justifying hypocrites, pessimists who accept the injustices of the world as immutable, yet somehow holding out for a better future despite not putting any effort towards reform. Things don't have to remain this way, however. This is precisely the sort of film which previous generations of Romanians would not have made and would not have appreciated. The very fact of this film's production inspires hope for a better future.

The word "aferim!" comes from Turkish, and it means bravo! Various characters congratulate one another with this phrase when what they have done or said is hardly praiseworthy. Certainly the director deserves a sincere aferim! for having made this film, which may yet enlighten many Romanians.

I think as a film, it is capable of being enjoyed by persons of any ethnicity. Certainly Americans (especially black Americans) will find much of its presentation of the treatment of gypsies profoundly similar to the treatment of African slaves in the colonies and in the United States. Still, as I've noted, there are certain things which you will only pick up if you are Romanian yourself.

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